Kuhn Thomas

Kuhn Thomas

(1922-1996) US historian of science whose sociological accounts of science have done much to undermine conventional, ‘abstract’, general philosophical accounts such as EMPIRICISM and FALSIFICATIONISM. In Kuhn's view there simply is no universal scientific method in terms of which the achievements of science can be presented in an abstract general form (see also FEYERABEND).

Kuhn's central thesis is that science can only be properly understood as a historically and socially located product. In understanding a particular scientific approach, the historian of science must learn to apply its central concepts in the same way as a scientist working within a particular tradition applies those concepts. This being so, the study of science becomes no different from the study of any other group or community studied by the sociologist or anthropologist. Kuhn specifically notes the affinities between his own methods and HERMENEUTICS and MEANINGFUL UNDERSTANDING AND EXPLANATION, and between his own central concept of SCIENTIFIC PARADIGM and the Wittgensteinian notion of FORMS OF LIFE.

In his most influential work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), Kuhn advances a general account of science in which he sees it as undergoing periods of‘revolutionary’ change in which previously established notions are overturned. Central to this account is Kuhn's claim that the upheavals are such (e.g. the INCOMMENSURABILITY of the scientific concepts that reign supreme before and after) that conventional notions of cumulative ‘scientific progress’ cannot be sustained (see NORMAL AND REVOLUTIONARY SCIENCE).

Critics of Kuhn reject the tendency to philosophical RELATIVISM involved in such an account of science. However, a rejection of conventional philosophical accounts of scientific rationalism, and an advocacy of historical, sociological and psychological accounts of science, need not imply support for a doctrine of outright philosophical relativism (see also SCIENCE). It must be said, however, that Kuhn himself has been ambiguous on these issues.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000